William P. Daley, famous ceramist and longtime teacher, dies at 96

William P. Daley, 96, an internationally acclaimed ceramist and art teacher, died on Sunday January 16 of heart failure at his home in Elkins Park.

Mr. Daley was part of what is known as the American studio craft movement, a shift that took root after World War II when artists rejected mass-produced crafts and art and have combined the two. Mr. Daley most often worked in clay – he called it mud – and many of his pieces, true to motion, are equally functional and inspiring.

As an example, Mr. Daley noted in a 2010 Inquirer video that a cistern he created not only collected water, but was specifically designed to convey “the idea that rain is an event sacred”.

“Craftsmanship is absolutely vital to making art,” Mr Daley said in the video. “But if it’s just craftsmanship, it can’t be art. … All art must be psychically, intellectually or emotionally useful.

In addition to his many signature pieces of large unglazed stoneware vessels, Mr. Daley has created screens, walls, fountains and other objects. His work is exhibited in museums in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, London, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea and elsewhere.

Its large-scale architecture can be seen, among others, in Philadelphia at Landmark’s Ritz Five Cinema on Dock Street and the Germantown Friends School on West Coulter Street; and in West Chester at Westminster Presbyterian Church on West Pleasant Grove Road.

Elisabeth Agro, curator of modern and contemporary American crafts and decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said Mr. Daley “has profoundly influenced many people in the field of American craftsmanship” and “has been committed in deep contemplation of the “inner spiritual grace” of humanity.

Ruth Fine, former curator of special projects of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said Mr Daley was “of immense significance in [Philadelphia’s] pay attention to handicrafts.

Mr. Daley also taught in the craft and industrial design departments of the Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts, from 1957 to 1990, and dozens of his students have distinguished themselves in ceramics, glass , furniture and design.

William R. Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, called Mr. Daley “a generous teacher who impacted the thinking of generations of artists.”

Mr. Daley has curated dozens of exhibitions, received numerous awards for his art and teaching – including the 1991 College Art Association of America Distinguished Teaching of Art Award – and has written for his own website. He and Helen Drutt were founders of the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen, and the Helen Drutt Gallery in Philadelphia was its main dealer.

He even sometimes encouraged those viewing his work to manipulate the pieces to better grasp their emotional impact. “All art is this link between one human being and another, a kind of communication” he said in 2010.

In 2009, Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote that “the physical presence of [Mr. Daley’s] the work is powerful and unavoidable” and that “one is able to appreciate both the formal ingenuity and the seduction of the compositions and the perceptual dualities they generate”.

Mr. Daley was born March 7, 1925 in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was shot down on his first assignment as a tail gunner, and spent a year as a POW in Turkey and Germany before being released.

Using the GI bill, he earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Massachusetts College of Art in 1950, and two years later earned a master’s degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

He met fellow student Catherine Anne Stennes in a college art class and they were married for 70 years. They had a son Thomas and daughters Barbara and Charlotte, and lived in Elkins Park. His wife died in 2021.

Mr. Daley was known for his sense of humor and the 21 variations of press caps he liked to make and wear while working. He preached learning by doing and called himself the “Octogenarian Mud Man” at the age of 80.

“The world is poorer without him,” wrote a former student in an online tribute.

In addition to his son and daughters, Mr. Daley is survived by six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, a sister and other relatives. A brother died earlier.

Private services were held on Saturday, January 22, and a memorial service is to be held later.

Donations in his name may be made to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, PO Box 518, Deer Isle, Maine 04627.

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